This week, a fellow blogger on ChinaDaily, Laoshi Dan (Teacher Dan) posted what he called his final blog at that outlet. It was a sad but scathing indictment of cyber-limitations one might encounter in China: no Google, no Epals or Wikispaces to draw teaching materials from. You can read his article here: http://blog.chinadaily.com.cn/blog-1453444-35036.html
Every time I leave China, I marvel at the familiar online resources I can once again access. Google: check! YouTube: check! Hulu: check! I don't FaceBook but, if I did, there would be a 'check' there, too. I can download faster, outside of China. Invariably, sometime during my travels, I wonder why I stay in China, where so much as watching episodic television is well-nigh impossible unless you do it in Chinese.
Well... that's not the only reason I sometimes wonder why I stay in China.
Like Dan, I came here full of hope and anticipation: “Having arrived to this great country almost eight long years ago with an open heart filled with enthusiasm, curiosity, and eagerness to make a difference...”, and I'll admit I am now somewhat jaded on the China experience. It is very, very cold in the winter and the air is dangerously polluted. In spite of my unwavering faith in China and the Chinese, I've butted my head against immovable Chinese dogma, to no avail. I've been victim of theft and been the subject of much gossip and, sometimes, hilarity. In my travels I am a tourist attraction in my own right, even as I try to enjoy the sites this country has to offer.
And, like Dan, I'm getting tired.
But, I came here on a mission: To see everything this great country has to offer, and I'm not done seeing. In the process of that, I'm privileged to help bring the west to young Chinese minds. As I've learned from countless conversations with my students and people in general – anyone I converse with!, the Chinese want to know life outside of their perspective. They need to see the world is bigger than their country's borders, even as Chinese cyberspace is so limited.
I don't handle this task I've taken on lightly. That's why, in spite of niggling doubts, I stay.
I too had Gmail and Skype before coming here. A year into my sojourn, those services became unavailable in China. That was really no big deal. One can forward their g-mail to another account. My QQ mail serves me well, and I still receive my forwarded mail from Google. Mostly spam, at this point, having been 5+ years off Gmail. All of my contacts, personal and professional, know my new email address and have no problem using it.
When I was having trouble accessing Skype, QQ served (and continues to serve) very well. Every week, my family logs into QQ for our video chat. More recently I've upgraded my phone, so now I can use WeChat. While in America earlier this year, I introduced my family to this app, and now we stay in touch by text message or phone call, as though I lived right down the street from them.
Yes, mainstream online services that westerners are familiar with and subscribe to are blocked and/or inaccessible in China. However, China has comparable services and sites. A westerner mourning his/her Gmail account can forward their mail to an approved Chinese mail account. For those who need a search engine, China has them, too. For entertainment, there are plenty of sites and games. Why mourn the loss of the familiar?
Consider this: at the outset of my China journey, while still in America, I started a blog that I have not been able to access since I've lived in China - for going on 6 years. Still, my entries get published. I send them to a pair of more-than-willing conspirators, who post those articles and maintain my page in my absence. Thanks to Google's mail forwarding services, I can see my blog activity, even though I cannot access the blog itself while I'm here.
Granted, maintaining a blog page is not as important as Dan's online college courses but, the point is: there are always workarounds. The trick is to find those solutions. Many foreigners opt for VPNs, which are illegal in China and are subject to random shutdowns – which, if you think about it, make VPNs doubly frustrating, because you pay for a secure connection, but don't have one. Why risk important online connections through a VPN when other solutions, sites and services can be found or other arrangements made?
A thoughtful poster had replied to Dan's article: “It is a pity that a comparatively minor issue such as China's restricted access to the Internet has disillusioned you as a teacher. Yes, cyberspace holds many precious resources, but the world existed for a long time without the Internet...”
And, it's not like we have NO internet connection here. It's just that China, like a good business person, promotes it's products and services in the face of competition. How many Americans have smeared Walmart for coming into their town, supposedly to usurp all of the local businesses? How many people despise Microsoft for, essentially, dominating the PC market? Why, when the trend seems to be 'shun the obvious/ordinary/familiar, do westerners in China moan the loss of the very phenomenon they would otherwise disdain?
Why shouldn't those who come to China use Chinese products/services/sites? And why slam China for making themselves competitive? Nobody ever mandated that FaceBook and Google be everywhere, after all!
Here is something I've told my students, off and on: they have no idea of the world before the cellphone and PC. I wonder if they'd be able to function without those conveniences? Granted, I would most likely not have left my family on the other side of the world to I amuse myself in China, had it not been for technology. Still, to rely solely on familiar sites, as Dan suggests in his post, is akin to our students not being creative or imaginative, or not seeking solutions outside of their norm – one of the greatest failings of the Chinese education system, opine many.
Having to find ways to connect with the outside world is a part of the China Experience. To refute everything China has to offer because of its allegedly limited internet opportunities is about like saying you won't come to my house because my furniture is not exactly like yours. Why bother coming to China at all if all you're looking for is a change of location, with all the comforts of home?
In my entry Everywhere The Same, posted August, 2011, I talk about how generic American cities have become: the same stores, restaurants, products, services and conveniences everywhere, all across the land. In my opinion, such standardization robs cities of their uniqueness. What's so special about eating at Applebee's in Minnesota that makes eating at Applebee's different, in Ohio?
Maybe Dan was hoping for that phenomenon in the cyber-world as well.
NOTE: I'd never heard of epals or Wikispaces before Dan's post because other sites, accessible in China, with materials for ESL teachers, abound. However, out of curiosity, I tried first one site and then the other, and had no problem loading either one of them. So, although I mourn Dan's capitulation to genericism, I thank him for 2 new resources I can use to enhance my students' classroom experience, and I wish him the best in his future endeavors.